You’ve probably seen footage of glitzy catwalk models, upper crust crowds rubbing shoulders that miraculously keep from clipping, and Agent 47 navigating the scene with cool professionalism. That uninterrupted walkthrough of Hitman’s The Showstopper stage has been available on IO’s official YouTube channel for some time and presents the game how it’s meant to be played. I like to take a different approach.
In efforts to eliminate two ringleaders of shadowy spy network IAGO, who are using this fashion show as a front for an auction in which they’re selling identities of covert operatives, there’s plenty of space for innovation. It’s a return to old Hitman values: huge multi-directional levels that cast you as hunter rather than the last game’s hunted. But what if you’re an Elmer Fudd like me?
For my first faux pas I stalk a waiter to his delivery van and garrote him with patented choking wire while he smokes, then infiltrate a subterranean kitchen in my newly acquired duds and tamper with a stove by haplessly jabbing a screwdriver around (I can also puncture oil canisters, make taps run, and electrify spotlights with this handy tool). Now leaking gas (the stove, that is), I do something quite stupid and turn it on. Boom! Agent 47 launches through the air in a fireball and I learn that yes, you can kill yourself. Reload.
“Our level design process is very elaborate because we don't create levels, we create locations,” says Hannes Seifert, Studio Head of Io-Interactive. “And of course there's a way to play through and just do the hits once, right, and then just see like five percent of it. And then you have all this other stuff you can do, and I think that's what makes the game interesting. It's a believable place. You have a sense of freedom and agency over what you're doing.” Freedom to blow yourself up, for instance.
You’ve also got the freedom to be a dick. In my second go I enter a grand palatial lobby and walk right up to a lady, staring at her for ages. You’d think she’d register a flicker of panic, but nothing. I run around in circles, then go stand in the moat of water around the stage. No one notices, and I feel a bit like a ghost. I do manage to elicit a reaction from one observant man who, after a few barges, remarks “Wait a minute…” For a moment it’s me walking slowly in circles and him farcially following and saying things like “Hold on, buddy,” before I lead him to the toilet and knock him out. While these responses are unconvincing, Hitman’s AI improves considerably in other areas.
Says Seifert, “We’ve added lot of new features to the AI. Like they can escort you out now, or discover stuff on the ground and fetch guards, guards will take the stuff and carry it into a vault, so you can actually distract guard by having a civilian fetch him, or make guards smuggle something into the building for you when you go through a frisk zone.” It makes for a more reactive game. I return to a stylist I murdered earlier and find a macabre sight: a guard slowly dragging him along the floor in a black body bag. Tailing, I see him deposit the corpse in a quiet corner, and upon returning later after more killings those body bags have piled up. Death has a process here.
Stealth is more nuanced, too. For example, only people who see you commit a crime will know about it. At one point two security guards catch me using a sledgehammer to play human whack-a-mole and before they can radio for help I punch them both to oblivion. Back to blissful anonymity I go, thankful that Absolution’s hivemind NPCs, who all knew the instant you killed someone, are no more.
They’ve got different resting states of suspicion, too. A waiter on the other side of the stage has no idea the disguise I’m wearing isn’t mine, but if I try and pass myself off as his non-bald colleague, he’s going to notice. People also have a third state between living and dead: unconscious. Seifert says this leads to moments where they can wake up naked and go searching for their clothes in a panic, although regrettably I haven’t actually witnessed this.
Other ways of interacting with this level includes putting a coin inside a mechanical diorama to turn it on and confuse people, dropping heavy metal scaffolding on unwitting heads, hacking into a laptop and sabotaging the auction and, I’m told by a fellow games writer I hope isn’t pulling my leg, disguising myself as a model and taking to the catwalk.
Inside Hitman’s largest, most complex, most impressive location ever, inconsistent AI is mostly ignorable. The controversial pricing structure isn’t. After several revisions and the need for an infographic to explain it all, IO have settled on the model: in March the intro pack launches with just one level in The Showstopper, then throughout 2016 comes Italy, Marrakech, Thailand, USA, and Japan. You can buy them in installments or as a complete package at the end of the year, a bit like Telltale’s Walking Dead games.
Seifert calls Hitman the world’s first ‘AAA episodic game’. “When you do something groundbreaking people always question it. I think that's OK that they should, right, but people that ask why don't we wait and ship everything at once? That's what we do. You can buy the game when the season is concluded...why make all the other people who want to be part of it wait to try? They can just join earlier.”
With thorough playthroughs of The Showstopper clocking in “at least 4 hours”, according to Seifert’s metrics, and the entirety of Absolution taking “between 11 and 16 hours,” it’s clear that when you take into account later locations and all the havoc you can cause within them, this is a much, much bigger game. “I think at the end of the season when people look back to what they played and what they have I cannot imagine anybody would be disappointed by the amount of gameplay we have in it.”